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April 15, 2002

Putting a scandal in perspective

By Paul Schratz

We have lessons to learn from suffering, and in fact the lessons learned as a result of pain are often some of the most important in a lifetime.

If there is meaning in pain, therefore, we can also pray that we will benefit from important lessons learned from the sex abuse scandal currently shaking the Catholic Church in the U.S.

The Church in Canada knows what itís like to be on the rocky road the Americans are currently travelling. When we went through our own sexual abuse crisis a decade ago, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops established an ad hoc Sexual Abuse Committee that produced two documents. The first, Breach of Trust, Breach of Faith, was published in March 1992 and included guidelines and outlines for group leaders in hope of stimulating discussion about abuse.

The second report, appropriately entitled From Pain to Hope, called for a break in the wall of silence that had allowed sexual abuse to persist for years within the Church.

During this Easter season, as weíre celebrating Godís conquering of death and evil, we pray that while the Church goes through this crisis, pain will once again be transformed to hope.

At the same time, however, itís critical to keep in mind that although the Church is in crisis, there is scarcely a time in history when the same could not be said. From the days after Pentecost, when the disciples were being jailed and martyred, through the scandals of today, the Church has frequently been one step away from extinction. (G.K. Chesterton said the Church has actually been buried and extinguished a number of times in history. It just keeps coming back to life.)

In our eagerness to learn from our mistakes and our pain, itís important that we learn the right lessons, and that will only happen if the situation weíre studying is accurately understood.

Most of the people who are revealing the Churchís failures are not, letís be honest, fans of the Church. They write and speak about the Church often, but their attitude toward the Church as the Bride of Christ bears little resemblance to ours.

They deserve our thanks for unearthing much that needed to be unearthed, and for asking questions that needed asking, yet the lessons they hope we will learn and the conclusions they want us to draw are not necessarily in the best interests of the Church.

In the case of sexual abuse among the clergy, it can be helpful to remember that the situation as presented is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Itís incumbent on us to be sure the facts are right, the perspective is accurate, and the conclusions we are reaching are the right ones.

When analyzing the U.S. situation, proper perspective demands that we consider the following:

The levels of abuse in the U.S. compared with the rest of the world.

Comparable abuse statistics among clergy in non-Catholic denominations, among married clergy, among other professions, and among the general population.

The small percentage of priests who have actually been accused of anything.

How long ago the abuse took place, and how society at the time generally regarded such incidents.

Whether the allegation is still an allegation, or has resulted in a criminal charge or an actual conviction.

The credibility of the allegations.

There is neither the space here nor the need to explore all those elements in detail. In the current context, any comprehensive examination would appear to be a defensive response. Whatís more, theyíve been explored in great detail among media that are genuinely trying to report the truth about the scandal, as opposed to the pack journalism that is content to merely dig up more allegations.

It is sad that among the mainstream press there has been next to no interest in exploring these critical factors that place the scandal in some context. They are questions that are crucial to getting at the truth, and to ignore them as irrelevant is to reduce sexual abuse to mere lurid details of prurience.

When Peter Jennings anchored a recent ABC report entitled The Church in Crisis, and had an entire hour to explore some of these issues, the resulting program more closely resembled pornography than journalism, as commentator Michael Markwick put it.

This is not a case of shooting the messenger. The media should be credited for finding impropriety that had been swept under the carpet. They must not be praised, however, for taking the dirt and throwing it into the air, creating an illusion of a dust storm.

All of us, from the Pope down to the average Catholic in the pews, are shattered by tales of priests who have fallen, of lay people whose lives were destroyed. At the same time, we should keep in mind that there are many people who relish and delight in the coverage. It confirms their worst misperceptions of the Church. It also helps them to make their case for and achieve their agenda of reconstructing the Church and reinterpreting its mission on earth.

We ought to be very cautious at allowing people who have mis-defined the problem to then outline solutions for us.

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